Wednesday, January 7, 2009


“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak….In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly
one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten….Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control….

“By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will
be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

--George Orwell

I had wanted to read 1984 for a long time, and I was pretty excited when I received it for a Christmas present this year (yep, that’s how gift-giving goes at my house). I got really involved in the story and finished it in just a few days. Of course, there are all sorts of very relevant social, political, and philosophical issues brought up in this book. It’s a frightening cautionary tale, and I think we should all listen to its warning. I don’t think that society could ever quite sink to the depths that Orwell describes (surely some sort of human decency would prevail in the end), but in this age of global conflict and thermonuclear weapons, we really can’t be too careful.

That’s not really what I want to get into, though, and the last thing I want to write is a literary analysis of the text. Instead, I thought I’d post the above passage. When I was reading it, I literally had to stop several times to regain composure. It affected me profoundly. It disgusted me.

I love language. Now, I’m no linguist. I used to speak a fair amount of Latin, but not anymore. I took four years of Spanish in high school and was quite good at it, but I can already feel my ability to understand it slipping away. Use it or lose it, I’m afraid, and I’m not using it. What a waste.

Still, I love the inherent musicality of most languages. I enjoy the subtleties of expression that come from manipulating words and reforming them into nothing short of art. I love to read (obviously—else I never would have encountered 1984 in the first place!) and I like to write, too, even though I’m not particularly good at it. Sure, I can spew out a decent blog post, and I’m a first-rate bullshit-er when it comes to writing term papers, but creative writing isn’t exactly my forte. I lack both talent and attention span. My attempts at “books” and plays early in childhood were utter disasters, and my poetry wasn’t much better, so I gave it up as a lost cause. However, being an author is something that I would like to do if only I were capable.

I guess what I’m really trying to say, personal anecdotes and rambling aside, is that there is something exquisitely beautiful and powerful about language. It is the main mode of communication of ideas. It is an art form. It is, to quote the Theory of Knowledge diagram, one of the four Ways of Knowing, alongside emotion, reason, and sensory perception. So when I was reading about the destruction of Oldspeak (modern English) in favor of Newspeak (a horribly clipped, staccato, simplified dialect) I was appalled. I was even physically affected, curling up into a ball as I read.

To me, human decency and goodness are intertwined with creativity and beauty. Language is one of the main catalysts of said creativity and beauty. Additionally, as the passage clearly states, without language creative thought is “literally impossible, because there [are] no words in which to express it.” A loss of language means a loss in the “range of consciousness” and by extension a loss of individuality. The horror, the horror! I found this annihilation of words to be just as tragic and atrocious as the acts of beating and brainwashing that occurred elsewhere in the novel.

Let’s just hope that Orwell’s dire predictions never come true. May uniqueness, creativity, and language prevail.

(As a friendly warning from me to you, I really don’t recommend reading 1984 late at night just before falling asleep unless you want to have some pretty disturbing nightmares. I woke up at three in the morning quite convinced that there was a telescreen in my room and the Thought Police were coming to arrest me.)

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